Icaria: Greek Paradise in Turmoil

If you search any popular social media outlets for posts on Greece, you’ll likely be met with two very conflicting themes: Greece as an idyllic paradise and Greece as a country consumed by political and economic turmoil. Pictures of sunbathing tourists stand in stark contrast to images of violent riots. It’s difficult to imagine these separate worlds exist in the same country, but the content on Twitter and Tumblr suggest otherwise.

On the Greek island of Icaria, off the coast of Turkey in the Aegean Sea, the chaos of the mainland is intruding on what would otherwise be an idyllic paradise.

Agios Kirikos, Icaria

Agios Kirykos, capital of Icaria, used under Creative Commons licensing.  

Icaria is home to some 10,000 Greek Nationals. According to Dan Buettner, a researcher with National Geographic and AARP, Icaria has the world’s highest percentage of 90-year-olds, with nearly one in every three individuals surviving into their nineties. Icarians also have a 20 percent lower rate of cancer, a 50 percent lower rate of heart disease and almost no dementia. This island is largely (and historically) self-sufficient, but it has been a part of Greece since 1912.

Long a disputed territory because of its advantageous positioning in valuable fishing waters, Icaria broke free of the Ottoman Empire in 1912 and signed a 100-year treaty with Athens granting Greece political control over the island. The treaty expires this year and many residents of the island are none-too-eager to remain in the hands of debt-addled Greece.

According to an article published in an Italian newspaper in July, the people of Icaria do not wish to extend their Greek status. Rather, they are interested in pursuing a contractual relationship with another European country with less debt and a more stable political system. A local politician has suggested Austria as a potential suitor for Icaria. 83 percent of Austrians, when polled by an Austrian daily paper, were in favor of annexation (and of increased access to picturesque Aegean beaches).

The Greek government, as you might expect, is none too keen on this idea of Icarian annexation. When news of the desire for annexation emerged back in July, the Greek Embassy in Vienna released a press release rife with hostility, asserting that “Icaria is an inseparable part of Greek territory, and there is no expiring agreement between the Greek government and the island” and that the Treaty of Lausanne from 1923 “confirms that the islands of the East Aegean, including Icaria, belong to Greece.”

For an island that prides itself on the health and self-sufficiency of its people, I can only imagine that being dragged down or held back by Greece’s debt crisis is vexing at best. While I am certainly no expert in Greek treaties and in no position to question the veracity of the Greek Embassy’s claims about Icaria’s right to annexation, I certainly don’t blame the people of Icaria for wanting to try something different.

The Lagarde List, Kosta Vaxevanis and Greek Freedom of the Press

Journalists, especially those who call themselves “investigative,” have an ethical obligation to expose wrongdoing, especially by the government. And when these whistles are blown in supposedly democratic countries, any punitive measures taken against the journalist constitutes dangerous oppression.

I have written at length about the neo-Nazi crisis facing Greece, but for this post I want to shift my focus (and yours) to a different emergency of democracy: the erosion of the right to freedom of expression. In a story that exploded across social media and the Internet this past week, journalist Kostas Vaxevanis was arrested on charges of violation of privacy for releasing the now infamous “Lagarde List”. Although Vaxevanis was later acquitted of all charges, this event is nonetheless damning of the Greek government.

Compiled by Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, this list contains the names of more than 2000 Greek citizens alleged to have HSBC bank accounts in Switzerland as a part of a tax evasion scheme. Back in 2010, Lagarde handed this list over to the former Greek Finance Minister Giorgos Papakonstantinou. The list sat around collecting dust, despite public outcry (and the concurrent use of such lists by France and Germany to crack down on tax evasion). When asked why he had not used the list or gone after the dodgers, Papakonstantinou replied that he “lost it.”

Vaxevanis, one of the nation’s, decided (and rightfully so) that he was fed up with government inaction. He published the list in Hot Doc, a well-regarded magazine he both edits and publishes. Vaxevanis was careful to note that not all the names on the list were those of individuals who had broken the law, but that the lack of government response made the open publication of the list necessary to “end this insult against the Greek people.”

According to an article originally published in The Nation, tax evasion costs the Greek government an estimated 28 billion euros per year. When you consider the latest round of austerity cuts amount to under half of the amount lost annually to tax dodgers (13 billion euros), and that this burden of austerity will largely fall on the poor and otherwise disenfranchised in Greece, I think it becomes pretty clear why Vaxevanis did what he did: his ethical obligation as an investigative journalist.

In my view, Vaxevanis was asking a question of vital importance in the interest of societal preservation: Millions of Greeks have suffered and will continue to suffer under austerity measures; why hasn’t the Greek government take action against tax evasion when so much potential and necessary tax revenue is at stake?

In the days since his arrest, Vaxevanis has been extremely vocal about his justification and experiences. Of his arrest and subsequent trial, Vaxevanis said: “Instead of arresting the tax evaders and the ministers who had the list in their hands, they’re trying to arrest the truth and freedom of the press. I’ll say something very simple: Journalism means publishing something that others are trying to hide. Everything else is public relations.”

You might wonder why any of this matters. Vaxevanis was acquitted, so what’s the big deal?

More than simply a story about the dubious nature of governmental policy in Greece, this story is also an indictment of the mainstream media. Although the Greek blogosphere was incredibly active in the days following Vaxevanis’ arrest, circulating petitions demanding his release and collecting more than 10,000 signatures, and in spite of the story’s traction in the international press, most Greek media outlets were silent. When Vaxevanis was released, both CNN and the BBC cut into their regularly scheduled broadcast to break the news. Once again, the Greek mainstream media was silent.

To me, Vaxevanis’ plight emphasizes the very notion of democracy is evermore at stake in Greece. Despite claiming to uphold tenants like freedom of the press, the Greek government is not one for independent journalism. The majority of TV stations and print outlets are either owned outright by the government or by plutocratic corporations, both of whom have an interest in keeping controversies like the one exposed by Vaxevanis at bay. This case demonstrates the potential dangers of state/corporate owned and influenced media. It’s hard to have a “free press” when those you’re monitoring sign your paychecks.

Asteris Masouras, a freedom of speech monitor at Global Voices, told the New York Times that journalists in Greece “still have freedom of expression recognized by the law at a theoretical level,” but on a practical level, “well…”

The implication of Masouras’ comments are obvious: at this point, the Greek government is merely paying lip service to the idea of freedom of expression and increasingly, to the idea of democracy itself.

Golden Dawn Goes International

Since my last post, support for Greek neo-Nazi’s, anti-immigrant and violently xenophobic party Golden Dawn has continued to grow. A poll conducted in Greece last week shows support for Golden Dawn in Parliament at 13 percent and support for the party’s leader, Nikos Mihalolioakos, at 22 percent (an increase of eight percent since May 2012).

Golden Dawn has also opened offices abroad in areas of Greek diaspora, including the U.S., opening an office in Astoria, Queens. The office reportedly went unnoticed until members of the party volunteered for a clothing drive organized by the Federation of Hellenic Societies of Greater New York. When boxes arrived at the Federation marked “For Greeks Only,” first vice president of the Federation, Christos Vournas, took the story to the press.

Once made public, the Astoria office was met with opposition from many groups, including elected officials, leaders of prominent Jewish organizations and members of the Greek community.

Golden Dawn propaganda in Queens, courtesy of yfrog user Alex Andreou

Public Advocate Bill de Blasio made clear that Golden Dawn was not welcome in Queens, saying, “your hatred and bigotry will fall on deaf ears in Queens, the most diverse county in America, where people of every race, creed and nationality live side by side in harmony.”

Shortly after news of Golden Dawn’s presence in Queens broke, Anonymous took down Golden Dawn’s New York chapter web site, announcing their actions via Twitter:

GOLDEN DAWN NOT ONLY IS YOUR PHONE LINES TANGO DOWN, BUT UR WEBHOST R BELONG TO US:xanyc.org

— Anonymous (@YourAnonNews) September 24, 2012

The site is still down. Occupy Astoria, an offshoot of Occupy Wall Street, will hold a public meeting on October 9th to discuss strategies for keeping Golden Dawn out of New York City. An invitation to the event has been making the rounds on social media, with both retweets and reblogs on Twitter and Tumblr respectively.

Golden Dawn has also opened offices in Montreal, Quebec. A petition with nearly 1,750 signatures is circulating on social media asking the Canadian government to ban Golden Dawn from establishing offices in the country.

The party also has plans to open an office in Melbourne, spurring public outcry from Greeks in Australia who are seeking to distance themselves from the party. Melbournes’ chapter of Golden Dawn has set up a Facebook page (that has received several thousand likes) and attempted to disrupt Greek National Day celebrations by protesting in clothing advocating Golden Dawn.

Although Golden Dawn is not yet a threat to the majority government in Greece, neither were the Nazis in Germany until they burned the Reichstag down. With the party’s increasing agitation at home and abroad, it would be foolish not to approach the problem with vigilance.

The rise of fascism in Greece was never an exclusively Greek problem, but it is no doubt becoming increasingly difficult for those outside of Greece to ignore the party’s ever-growing influence. Organized opposition in Greece and abroad is the only proper response to the increasing influence of Greek’s fascist party.

Neo-Nazis in Greece

Since their election to Greek Parliament in June, the popularity of Golden Dawn, Greece’s fascist party, has been on the rise. After the elections, public support for Golden Dawn polled around six percent. In the four months since, Golden Dawn supporters have been associated with escalating violence against immigrants and increasingly nationalistic and jingoistic displays of “Greek-Only” pride, including “Greek-Only” food drives and blood banks.

Alarmingly, in a poll released late last week, national support for Golden Dawn was up almost four points with support for the party polling around ten percent. As the Greek economy continues to crumble, the conditions are ripe for a party scapegoating foreign powers and immigrants as responsible for Greek troubles. But what is perhaps even less surprising is that Europe has seen this before: a fascist party gaining power and popularity in the face of economic crisis and the imposition of harsh austerity measures.

You need not look any further than the rhetoric the party has adopted in the advancement of their platform to see some obvious parallels. The official party song is a direct translation of a “Nazi Stormtrooper hymn” and their motto, “blood, honor, Golden Dawn,” a direct translation of the motto of the Nazi SA. They even sell copies of Mein Kampf at their headquarters.

Watch a NYT video report on Golden Dawn.

Yet the news surrounding Golden Dawn is not all bad. The government, journalists and civil dissidents alike are beginning to stand against the party.

Last week, Justice Minister Antonis Roupakiotis announced that racially motivated crimes now carry a minimum three year sentence. Roupakiotis was blunt in his explanation of the legislation, saying:

“We condemn in the strongest possible way every act of violence, and especially actions by members and supporters of Golden Dawn against immigrants or other citizens. We believe this is an insult to our long-standing notions of justice and the defense of human rights. It is a threat to harmony in society and creates the conditions to develop fascist and neo-Nazi ideology.”

Greek hospitals have called Golden Dawn’s “Greek-only” blood drives “repulsive” and have promised to deliver blood based only on need, never on race.

Twice this year, unknown individuals have destroyed Golden Dawn offices, first in the town of Patras and mostly recently in Central Athens.

The Greek Federation of Journalists warned warned “Hitler nostalgics” that they would not be intimidated and would continue to vocalize their opposition to the party and its Neo-Nazi tactics.

While the mainstream response to Golden Dawn is heartening, the rise of the party is nonetheless deeply unsettling. As Americans, we view institutionalized racism and fascism as a thing of the past. We also tend to the dismiss the possibility of an authoritarian regime rising to power in a modern Western nation.

But the frightening reality is that we are watching this very situation unfold in Greece. Economic stress and uncertainty about the future has led at least ten percent of Greeks to express support for a party eerily reminiscent of the Nazi party in Germany. Conditions in Greece today and the Weimar Republic following World War I are not dissimilar. Unemployment and inflation have skyrocketed. Both nations owe or owed a tremendous debt to other European powers (ironically, Greece owes a substantial portion of its debt to Germany).

People in Greece are looking for answers and Golden Dawn is more than happy to provide them: the foreigners, the socialists and the EU are responsible for Greece’s problems. Blame them. Greece is for Greeks. And Golden Dawn will fight like hell to keep it that way.

Let’s hope like hell they don’t get that far.

Anti-immigrant Violence in Greece

Greece, as you’re most likely aware, is in economic turmoil*. When the global recession hit in 2009, the Greek economy took a nose dive and the country’s debt began piling up. Today, The country’s unemployment rate sits at a staggering 23.1 percent. For comparison’s sake, note that we are currently experiencing (and panicking over) 8.1 percent unemployment in the States. Imagine the unease created by an unemployment rate that is nearly three times as high.

On top of exploding national debt and unemployment, Greece also faces an exploding immigrant population. In fact, nearly 10 percent of the country’s population is immigrants, putting a strain on Greece’s already strained social and governmental services.

Some in Greece equate the influx of immigrants with “rising crime and urban degradation,” especially in urban areas like Athens. The response to rising immigration rates has occurred on both a governmental level–with increasing government crackdown on illegal immigration–and a societal level, with an increased rate of xenophobically motivated violent attacks.

View: An Al-Jezeera report on anti-immigrant violence in Athens

In fact, these attacks have become so common that they are now woven into the cultural identity of immigrants in Greece. A July 18, 2012 post from Global Public Square lamented that “violence has become such a part of daily life for migrants and asylum seekers in Greece that an Afghan community festival in May included a skit about a man being brutally beaten in a park by Greek racists.”

Many activist groups have called for state intervention to prevent xenophobic violence from escalating further, including Human Rights Watch (as previously mentioned) and Amnesty International.

Some Greek conservatives view xenophobia is a natural response to immigration influx. Antonis Samaras, former foreign minister and current conservative government leader, called illegal immigration a form of “unarmed invasion,” saying that deportation “will send the message to those seeking to come to forget about it. And to those already here, to leave voluntarily.”

Something must be done to relieve tensions between native Greeks and immigrants before the situation further deteriorates. Watchdog agencies of the EU and other international organizations should monitor the situation to insure that cases of ethnic violence are properly reported and prosecuted and that the government’s immigration crackdowns do not threaten human rights.

Check back in the next few weeks for an examination of Golden Dawn, a neo-fascist party gaining political power in Greece.

*Explaining the economic crisis in full requires much more than a single blog post. If you’re interested in learning more, The BBC has an excellent primer on the subject.